Breath and the Brain: How Yogic Breathing Affects Brain Function
It’s not hard to see that asana affects the body in specific ways, like building strength and flexibility. The medical and scientific community has also produced evidence on the effects of meditation, ranging from less anxiety to better sleep.
But breathwork is equally important in the yoga tradition, though it’s often neglected by practitioners and by researchers studying well-being. However, there’s no doubt that breathwork has an effect on the brain, and we’re starting to understand why.
What is breathwork?
Yogis practice numerous breathing techniques – like nadi shodhana and kapalabhati– and they can yield different effects on the brain and the body. But even simple controlled breathing has major benefits. Try slowing down your breathing and taking deeper breaths. Make the inhales and exhales the same length, and pause between each inhale and exhale. This basic exercise has many of the same calming effects as meditation.
How Breath Affects the Brain
We’ve all experienced how taking a long, deep breath produces an immediate feeling of relaxation. But how can a breath make such a big difference?
A recent neuroscience study identified one of the mechanisms through which breath affects the brain. The answer lies in a handful of nerve cells located deep in the brain stem, which have been called “the pacemaker for breathing.” They’re the reason (or at least part of it) that breath can impact mood and state of mind.
Other research has revealed how both breathing and yoga affect the parasympathetic nervous system, particularly through a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The release of GABA helps bring the body out of “fight or flight” mode and into a state of rest and restoration. Practicing yoga and breathwork increases GABA levels, which produces a feeling of relaxation.
Breathing is also related to the neurotransmitter noradrenaline, which is a stress hormone. The hormone is produced in the same region of the brain that is involved with both attention and breathing. When stressed, the brain produces excess amounts of noradrenaline, which inhibits focus. A study from last year found that focusing on breathing helps the brain release the right amount of noradrenaline, creating a steadier state of mind.
More Benefits of Breathwork
While the ways in which breath affects brain activity are complicated, the related benefits of breathwork are clear. Like other meditation or mindfulness techniques, breath control contributes to reduced stress levels, lower blood pressure, and a slower resting heart rate.
Breathwork also has a range of other benefits, like enhancing sleep quality, reducing reactivity, increasing focus, and improving digestion. It even helps to strengthen neural networks and maintain brain mass while aging, which is key to preventing cognitive decline.
Next time your yoga teacher talks about breathing, remember that breathwork isn’t just there to enhance the physical yoga practice. Rather, it offers a huge range of benefits on its own, whether it’s done as part of an asana class or a separate practice.
About the Author
Jen is a freelance writer, blogger, and yoga teacher who left her office job in Boston to travel the world with her husband. She previously worked in international development and academic research, and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Rwanda. Some of her biggest passions include promoting responsible and mindful travel and helping her students develop their personal yoga practice.